Feb 2012 Journal

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Gloucester and the Kindertransport: A city’s response to Kristallnacht

Rural Gloucestershire and its county city of Gloucester do not immediately come to mind when analysing the effects of Kristallnacht. However, it was in response to this terrible event that various religious, charitable and voluntary organisations in Gloucester decided to establish a hostel for older Jewish boys of the Kindertransport. These were boys the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany felt it would be difficult to place with families due to their age. The fact that very few people in Gloucester had ever encountered a Jewish person - or, for that matter, a German or Austrian citizen - made their decision to help foreign Jewish children even more remarkable and displays the powerful impact Nazi anti-Semitism had on non-Jewish people.

The hostel was set up by the Gloucestershire Association for Aiding Refugees (GAAR) following an emotional appeal for funding on the basis that this would be a long-term commitment to help child refugees. On 2 February 1939 The Citizen, the local newspaper, quoted Trevor Wellington, the Mayor of Gloucester, who read out a message from the Bishop of Gloucester, Dr Headlam, to a packed meeting at the city’s Guildhall: ‘It seems to me that as long as we are allowed to enjoy our liberty, our home life, our ordered freedom, we should do what we can to help those who are deprived of all these things.’

Through the efforts of local groups such as the National Association for Women, the Society of Friends, Girl Guides, Boy Scouts, Rotary Club and many others, GAAR was able to purchase the hostel in Alexandra Road for £750. They also provided furniture, food and clothes and employed two Czech Jews, Dr and Mrs Paul Arnstein, as wardens. In overall charge of the hostel was GAAR’s secretary, Mrs T. Hall, who dealt with the various aid agencies and, at times, parents, eventual employers and future foster parents. Additionally, the redoubtable Mrs Hall was called upon to help find employment for Jewish ‘domestic servants’, refugee children from Danzig and Czechoslovakia, and holiday accommodation for girls from Anna Essinger’s Bunce Court School in Kent.

In June 1939, as a consequence of the money raised, ten Jewish boys from Germany and Austria aged between 12 and 14 arrived in Gloucester from Dovercourt Camp via Barham House. The boys were Walter Kolpack (b. 1927, Vienna), Günther Meyer (b. 1924, Bochum), Iwan and Julius Mularski (b. 1925 and 1926, Lübeck), Peter Nebenzahl (b. 1925, Hamburg), Kurt Reimann (b. 1925, Danzig), Robert Suschitzki (b. 1926, Vienna), Arnold Ullmann (b. 1925, Berlin), Harry Vorgang (b. 1926, Vienna) and Werner Zorek (b. 1925, Breslau). During early summer 1939, Günther Meyer, Kurt Reimann and Arnold Ullmann replaced the names of Willi Schneider, Bruno Veis and Hugo Wolff as the latter had been found foster homes.

Each boy came with a registration card from the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany with a few personal details and brief descriptions as to their character. All were given the label ‘liberal Jew’, but it was the latter that give an insight into what were perhaps snap judgements as to how the boys were perceived. In the language of the day, they were described as ‘a decent boy’, ‘splendid little worker’, ‘tall and rather good appearance’ and ‘a very decent type of boy’.

The Citizen, 22 June 1939

As soon as the boys had arrived in Gloucester, they were enrolled at the local school with the long-term aim of giving each child a trade in which they could support themselves in later life. Prior to the war and the creation of the welfare state, and with a British Union of Fascists’ presence within the city, there was a palpable concern that the Jewish children should not be seen to be a burden on the state either then or in the future. On reaching the age of 14, each boy was sent to the city’s technical college and/or found an apprenticeship with a local employer such as builders, garage mechanics, leather workers and tailors. This situation continued until the end of 1941, when the last boy reached 14 and the hostel was sold. GAAR felt that the boys would now be better off going to foster families and continuing their apprenticeships. Although because of their nationality they were bound by various wartime defence restrictions (one foster family’s pleading had prevented Kurt Reimann from being interned), ironically it did not prevent them from being ‘fire watchers’, protecting the city from German bombing.

One of the most delicate situations in which Mrs Hall and the GAAR found themselves concerned the religious education of the boys. For a city that had had no synagogue or organised Jewish congregation since the mid-nineteenth century, Mrs Hall initially took advice from the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany and then from Rabbi Raphael Levine (1901-85) of the Liberal Jewish Synagogue, St John’s Wood, London. A lack of help from Bristol’s Jewish community resulted in Rabbi Rappaport, from Birmingham’s Sheepcote Street Synagogue, taking charge of the boys’ education. Although during the war the boys were allowed to travel by train to Birmingham, the practical realities of bombing, distance, cost and perhaps a lack of enthusiasm from most of the teenagers, particularly once lodging at their foster homes, meant that by 1942 religious education was spasmodic. This was despite Mrs Hall’s best efforts to get them to see the rabbi regularly.

The Gloucestershire County Archive holds all GAAR’s detailed papers, from its establishment in 1939 to the closure of the hostel in 1941. However, once the boys went off to their foster families, the record lacks significant detail. GAAR’s brief notes, along with records kept by London’s Jewish Military Museum, show that some left their apprenticeships to volunteer for war service, such as Peter Nebenzahl and Harry Vorgang, who entered the Intelligence Corps and Pioneer Corps respectively.

The end of the war confirmed what many of the boys must have suspected at the time and was subsequently confirmed by the Yad Vashem Shoah database: that their families had died in the Holocaust. Therefore, with little reason to return to Germany or Austria, boys like Iwan Mularski and Harry Vorgang stayed in Britain to make new lives for themselves, unlike Walter Kolpack and Werner Zorek, who travelled to America to join relatives. In the case of Julius Mularski, his new life brought him to Israel.

Although only one small part of the Kindertransport experience, the lives of the ten boys mirror those of the majority. Similarly, as with so many other host communities who had no prior knowledge of a non-Christian faith, the people of Gloucester did what they felt needed to be done by looking after Jewish children who sought a safe home.

Nicholas Burkitt

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